Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 22 Mar 1972

Vol. 72 No. 12

Electoral (Amendment) Bill, 1971: Committee and Final Stages.

Question proposed: "That section I stand part of the Bill."

It might be a good idea if the Minister explained briefly what was involved in this section. It is rather a lengthy detailed section.

Section 1 contains the amendments of the law relating to Dáil elections. It removes the requirement that the elector's number be marked on the counterfoil of the ballot paper handed to him in the polling station or, in the case of a postal voter, issued to him through the post. It extends to all ballot papers, whether they are valid or invalid, the obligation that, if the Dáil or High Court orders an inspection of ballot papers after an election, the mode in which any elector voted may not be discovered. The section prescribes a new form of ballot paper for Dáil elections. This is identical with the form at present prescribed except that the space for the insertion of the voter's number is removed. These amendments simply remove from the law the parts declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Paragraph (f) relates to postal votes and the Minister pointed out, before the tea break, that there was some confusion existing in my mind in relation to this. Perhaps there is because the Bill is being taken very hurriedly and I did not have too much time to check the Minister's earlier remarks. My distinct impression is that the procedure now in relation to postal votes would be that the postal votes would be removed from their outer envelope and placed within a ballot box without being unfolded and checked. It was this procedure which gave the political party agents the opportunity of getting either a rough or an exact calculation, depending on how good the agents were, as to how the postal voters had in fact voted.

That will be changed and the postal votes will be dropped unopened into a ballot box, which will then be sent to the counting centre for the remainder of the count for that constituency. As the Minister well knows when the box for, let us say, Clifden, is opened, the votes which are usually folded in four, are unfolded and counted. Sometimes they are unfolded and placed face downwards, which means that the political checkers have no idea what way those votes are going. They are often placed face upwards. If they are, that gives the representatives of the political parties a fair opportunity of assessing what way Clifden voted. Following this the votes are placed with an amalgam of other votes and it becomes impossible for people at the count to see what way Clifden voted. The opportunity presented to them to check on how the good citizens of the town of Clifden voted is when the ballot box is opened and the votes unfolded and checked off against the presiding officer's returns.

With postal votes the objection was that they were opened and checked the night before and this procedure enabled the political parties to ascertain the night before how the postal voters had voted, in the same way as they would ascertain the following day how the voters of Clifden had voted. Now the Minister says that that should not happen and the unfolded votes of the postal voters should be dropped into a ballot box. That ballot box would be sent along to the general count and would then be opened.

I want an assurance from the Minister in regard to this. When the ballot box is opened at the general count it will contain a number of unfolded votes. The tellers will have to open up those postal votes and straighten them out. In the same way that the political tellers will know that the ballot box for Clifden is being opened, they will now know that the box for the postal voters is being opened. They will be able to check in the same way as heretofore, except that it will be one day later, what way the postal voters in West Galway have voted. The precautions the Minister has built into the Bill will not help the postal voters to any great extent because the TDs for West Galway will still have a very clear idea of the approximate political affiliations of the Army and Garda in the constituency of West Galway.

What I referred to earlier as being objectionable is the counting and checking of postal votes at a time and place before the counting and checking of the rest of the votes. Because of this separate counting and checking the trend of Garda and Army voting patterns is available a day before the other ballot boxes are opened and the count proper begins. This happened in a certain constituency in a recent by-election when publicity was given to the voting trends of the postal votes cast by Army and Garda personnel.

That was a very "good" vote.

That was the Donegal by-election where Dr. Delap came to the House as a Deputy for Fianna Fáil.

"Good" was in inverted commas.

It was a very good result. The treatment postal votes will receive now will be the same treatment as all other votes. This is a good thing and this is what I was referring to.

In other words, the Minister has come to terms with the problem. Up to this the votes of the members of the Army and the Garda could be approximately ascertained the day before the count. As the Minister will recall, before we broke for tea he pointed out that he thought it was a bad thing that the voting pattern of a group of people, or people who were employed in a particular walk of life, in one constituency should be ascertained by the political parties. What I have said, and what the Minister's reply has confirmed, is that that voting pattern, unfortunately, may still be ascertained one day later. In the course of the count, in the same way that the political party representatives can confirm or ascertain the approximate voting pattern for the town of Clifden when the ballot box for the town of Clifden is opened, when the box for the postal voters is opened they will also be able to ascertain the approximate voting pattern of the postal voters. This still leaves the postal voters in a strange position in relation to the voting population of the country. They are the only social or economic group whose votes and whose political preferences can be clearly ascertained.

I am afraid, whether by accident or by design, the amendment which the Minister has introduced does not counteract that. My assumption of what the Minister said earlier—he later told me I was wrong in assuming it—would have counteracted it. That assumption was that the ballot papers which were extracted from the postal vote box should be counted face downwards, because they represented not a community where there was a disparity of social classes and employment—it is quite right that such votes should be counted face upwards—but people who are either members of the Army or members of the Garda force. Such votes should be counted face downwards to prevent the political tellers getting an indication of how those two extremely important groups voted.

When one considers, especially in present times, the great importance of our Army and our Garda force in preserving and safeguarding national security it is important that their voting patterns should not become apparent to the political parties. This is not a political point. We all know what the voting patterns of the postal voters have been over the years. Nevertheless, I think it would be better if we did not know their voting patterns in the future. That can be easily ensured by directing that the votes in the postal ballot box are counted in a face downwards position.

Great emphasis has been put on postal votes. Unless I am greatly mistaken—and I have some experience of filling in those papers and representing candidates at the filling of them—there are various practices and various ways of dealing with postal votes. If my memory serves me right, a man in the Army or in the Garda gets his voting paper, puts it into a plain envelope and then places that envelope in another envelope on which appears his number and the number of the ballot paper. The returning officer sends for the agents for the count, usually the night before the election. He counts the number of papers and the number of envelopes. He then opens the envelopes and takes out the plain envelopes. If the count is not right they are put aside and are kept in the custody of the returning officer. They are not opened there and then. This has been my practical experience of it. These papers are not opened until the count. By that time the outside covering envelope has been destroyed so that it is impossible to identify who voted what way, whether he is a garda, a soldier, or anything else.

It seems to me, from what I have heard Senator Boland saying, that there are other procedures working in different ways in other places. We should aim at getting standard practices not alone for postal votes but for all the activities of the returning officers, so that everything is carried out uniformly throughout the country. Then we would not appear to have these suggested anomalies. After an election many people are accused of illegalities, but from my experience of elections the returning officer has always acted in the most responsible way. There may be differences in procedures, and it might improve matters if we had one set of procedures for the whole country. So far as the postal vote is concerned, if the returning officer does his job properly there is not any way in which a vote can be identified.

I do not think Senator Boland was making the point that you could identify a particular vote. What he was pointing out was that you could identify the votes of two very important groups of people, namely, the Army and the Garda, who are charged with the security of the State. After an election it can be bandied about the country that they are either "pro" or "anti" whatever party was elected to the Government in that particular election. I think this is an important point. It is a very simple procedure to guard against that charge by counting the votes face downwards.

It is quite right that where there is a mixed community of shopkeepers, farmers, teachers, unemployed, labourers, market gardeners, truck drivers, and so on, their votes should be presented, face upwards, on the counting table. It is quite fair that the political parties and anyone else who wants to see those votes being turned out should know approximately what strength each party had in that area.

I can remember a town in which I worked in a by-election where I was very pleased to go back afterwards and congratulate them on the fact that it was the first time in 30 years that that town had voted for my party instead of for the Government party. I knew that because of the fact that the tellers on behalf of my party at the by-election count were able to see all those votes being turned out. However, I was not able to go back and tell them that the publicans in that particular town had voted 60 per cent for my party, 35 per cent for the Government and 5 per cent for the Labour Party. I could not distinguish the publicans as one social group from the farmers or from the labourers or from anybody else, because all of their votes were mixed together in one box and they had voted on one electoral register representing that town.

I have had experience of elections around Dublin and of by-elections in rural areas. The first difference I have heard about is Senator Honan's experience. If the method of counting votes in County Clare is strange, so also perhaps is the voting pattern. Perhaps it is not typical of the country.

I was talking about the postal vote.

That is a very valid point.

In the postal vote in most constituencies that I have come across, certainly in all of the Dublin constituencies the outer envelope is opened, the inner envelope is opened, and the postal votes, which are folded in four, are opened out flat, placed face upwards and counted one after the other. This is to ascertain if there are as many ballot papers produced as there were outer and inner envelopes. In other words, the figures should correspond. In the course of opening those ballot papers and placing them flat, face upwards, on the table the political agents who are watching are able to ascertain quite well what proportion of that vote went to their candidate. For instance, I know in my constituency what way the members of the Army and the Garda voted in percentage terms. I know in what way they voted in the adjoining constituency. I know that the figures are available to me of what way they voted in every one of the city of Dublin constituencies in the last general election. I do not think those figures should be available to me. In the same way, I think it would be very wrong if I knew the way in which all the farmers in the constituency of Clare-Galway had voted, or how all the shopkeepers in the same constituency had voted. It is especially wrong when one realises that the two particular groups about whom we are talking are the people charged with preserving the security of the State.

The Minister's amendment in section 1 goes a small way towards helping the position, because from now on the envelopes will be opened and the unfolded postal votes will be dropped into a ballot box. That ballot box will then be consigned to the place of the count and opened on the following day in conjunction with the opening of the boxes from the various towns and villages. Nonetheless, when that ballot box is opened, the papers which are taken out will still have to be unfolded. When they are being unfolded and placed face upwards on the table, the political teller will still be able to see them and will be able to ascertain the percentage voting pattern of the members of the Army and of the Garda.

I do not wish to detain the House any further or to prolong the discussion, but the simple solution that I am suggesting to the Minister is that, when the votes are being taken out of the postal ballot box and unfolded, they should be unfolded and placed face downwards. Care should then be taken that those votes which have been placed face downwards, after having been checked off against the total number of postal votes cast, should be placed into the bulk of the remainder of the votes and that nobody, whether they be the Fine Gael teller, the Fianna Fáil teller, or anybody else, should be able to say afterwards in what way the Army or Garda have voted in any particular constituency.

I think we should be careful not to let our imagination run away with us here, because we could extend this into the realms of the ridiculous. I am concerned about the counting of these postal votes, which are available to these two classes of persons, on a separate and a different day from the rest of the ballot papers. Therefore, it was open, up to now, for comment to be made on the trend. What will happen now is that they will all go into the count and they will be counted there with all the other boxes containing ballot papers, and will be checked in the normal way.

The Senator suggests that the postal votes should be counted face downwards, thereby exposing the number, which is the very thing we are trying to conceal. I spent some time listening to arguments of his colleagues in the Dáil. They were of the opinion that the numbers should not be seen and that they should be printed in the smallest possible print. The suggestion is coming to me now that I should have these votes counted face downwards for postal voters only. This runs contrary to the other arguments I heard. I am of the opinion—and the law provides for this—that it is better to have the votes counted face upwards so that the number is not exposed at any time during the counting and checking of votes. The Electoral Act, 1963, section 41, reads as follows:

The Returning Officer, while counting and recording the number of ballot papers shall keep the ballot papers with their faces upwards and shall take all proper precautions for preventing any person from seeing the numbers printed on the backs of such papers.

When I said we should not extend this to the realm of the ridiculous, what I meant was that I know of islands where there are small communities and where the voting is carried out a few days before the voting elsewhere, but the votes are all counted on the same day. When these boxes are opened and checked it is easy to determine the trend of voting on these islands. This is so in any ballot box containing a small number of voting papers. We should not try to extend the provisions too far, because we are anxious to maintain the secrecy of the individual ballot. We want to keep secret the way in which any individual voted and that is being done under the present system. I do not see any great problem arising in this matter.

In other words, would the Minister agree with me as a practical politician that the political tellers will still be able to ascertain the approximate percentages which have been cast in favour of each party by the postal voters in any constituency?

The Senator knows the difficulties in doing that. It is an approximation, as the Senator knows. It is a rough guess in any case. There is nothing accurate.

I bet the Minister has a fairly accurate approximation now of the postal vote.

The individual vote is protected and secret, and that is what is important.

I am not talking about the individual vote. This Bill, as I said earlier, goes a long way towards helping to preserve the secrecy of the individual vote, but I am saying that we could easily copperfasten the secrecy of the Army and Garda vote in any constituency. That, in fact, is not being agreed to. We, the political parties, will still be able to ascertain to within 2 or 3 per cent what way the members of the Army and the Garda force have voted in any particular constituency. At any time that is a bad thing but when one realises how important those voters are from the point of view of preserving national security, it is particularly unfortunate the Minister would not see the merit in directing that those votes alone should be counted face downwards.

Question put and agreed to.
Question proposed: "That section 2 stand part of the Bill."

This is the section which introduces the appropriate amendments regarding voting for the Seanad. It is, of course, of particular interest to everybody here, with the exception of those who are lucky enough to be here without having to go through the process of standing for election. One of the main changes is that the authorised person who now witnesses a Seanad elector's vote is obliged to take and destroy the outer envelope. Could the Minister explain to us how he is satisfied that the obligation to destroy that outer envelope is a mandatory one or what penalties or sanctions can be imposed upon a person who does not take and destroy that envelope?

The Senator is misreading the Bill. What the Senator is referring to relates not to section 2 but to section 6 and to the amendment of the Seanad Electoral Panel Members.

I am sorry, yes.

Question put and agreed to.
Question proposed: "That section 3 stand part of the Bill."

The same comment can be made about section 3 as was made about section 1. I do not know what it indicates. Does it indicate the social thinking of the parliamentary draftsman or of the Attorney General or of the Department of Local Government? When one looks at the candidates on the specimen ballot paper in section 3 one sees that they are the same candidates as appear on other specimen ballot papers. Section 3 produces a specimen ballot paper for a Presidential election and the mythical candidates are the same ones as appear on the specimen ballot paper for a Dáil election in section 1. One assumes that none of them was elected because they are all standing for the Presidential election. When one looks at their occupation one sees the names of James Doyle, a builder, James Doyle, a chemist, and James Lynch, a grocer. There is Séamus Ó Briain, oide scoile, which I suppose is a schoolteacher. It is not too long since I was at school and he was then a muinteoir, but now he is an oide-scoile. The next fellow, of course, is a barrister and he is followed immediately by a solicitor, and after that there is a gentleman. It is quite difficult to find these in an electoral panel sometimes. He is followed by a farmer. I do not know whether it is indicative of the thinking of the Parliamentary draftsman or not, but certainly the occupations which are specified for all of these mythical candidates are very comfortable ones. There is neither a poor, honest-to-God working-man, nor a labouring man. The candidates are all people who are of much the same social class. I just wondered if this was in any way indicative of the thinking of the people who draft these Bills, or whether they think that these are the type of people for whom they should be catering when they are compiling legislation like this.

The only comment I have is: where is the woman in it?

There is Jane Ellen Lynch, but she is only a grocer. She is not a barrister.

This is slightly irrelevant and does not merit any comment.

Where are the auctioneers?

Question put and agreed to.
Section 4 agreed to.
Question proposed: That section 5 stand part of the Bill."

Under section 5 what will happen is this. Each elector presently on the electoral register, in advance of going to cast his vote at the coming referendum on entry to EEC, will get a card which will assist him by explaining to him what the casting of his vote will mean and whether by voting "yes" he is in favour of the EEC or whether by voting "yes" he is committing the country to staying out of the Community. As I said on Second Stage, I think this is a very useful amendment to introduce. Indeed, because of the strange legal technicalities which oblige us whenever a referendum is being held to phrase the ballot paper in very terse technical and legal jargon, which is not easily understood by the ordinary elector, it might be useful if, at any time in the future when a referendum is being mooted, a short Bill were introduced to permit the Government to send out informative cards such as this. I know it has been done once before. It would be a good idea in connection with any amendment of the Constitution.

Question put and agreed to.
Question proposed: "That section 6 stand part of the Bill.

The remarks which I erroneously made on section 3 now pertain.

The Senator was referring earlier to the necessity for destroying the outer ballot paper. Is that correct?

Yes, the outer envelope.

This is of course the change because the declaration of identity will no longer have the ballot paper serial number written on it. In order to make it impossible for anybody other than the elector to vote in a Seanad election, we have devised this method. It should prove fairly effective. The outer envelope in which the ballot papers are forwarded to the elector shall be presented to the presiding officer or to the prescribed person, who shall thereupon destroy it, after the person has voted. This is a precaution against persons coming into possession of ballot papers which are legally the property of another elector, thus voting twice. It will act as a deterrent towards anybody attempting to vote twice in Seanad elections.

The Minister is not suggesting that that is happening?

No, but I think we should take all precautions against it. Removal of the number does weaken the protection afforded. Therefore, by insisting on this procedure, I think we are guaranteeing against fraud.

What obligation or form of checking is there upon the authorised person to destroy the outer envelope? The authorised persons are fine, upstanding people like county managers and other local dignatories. Is the Minister suggesting that any of them would wilfully decide not to destroy the outer envelope? They could easily be discarded and retrieved again. It is just a small point.

There are a number of persons before whom you may vote, as I have already mentioned. They are the Clerk or Assistant Clerk of the Dáil or Seanad, the county registrar, the city or county manager, the county secretary or a Garda superintendent. Such person will be obliged by law, once this Bill becomes law, to destroy the outer envelope. That is the only guarantee I can give the Senator. The prescribed person is obliged to comply with the law. A person has his ordinary rights under the electoral law to bring an election petition if doubt arises.

In other words, outer envelopes are now at a premium.

Why is the outer envelope that is brought to the superintendent so important?

I have already explained it. We are making it important now because each elector will receive his ballot paper in an official envelope, which will be sent to him by the returning officer. When he goes before the prescribed person he is now obliged to bring the other envelope with him and the prescribed person must destroy that once the ballot papers have been duly dealt with by him. This places an obstacle against any person attempting to vote twice in his own name, the second time with somebody else's ballot papers.

I was thinking of the reverse, because then the ballot papers are put into another outside envelope for which there is a registration docket. They could be identified at this end just as easily as at the other end.

The Minister did not answer Senator Honan's point.

Acting Chairman

The Chair has no control over whether the Minister answers or not.

Question put and agreed to.
Sections 7 and 8 agreed to.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported without amendment, received for final consideration and passed.